There’s a lot to attract hikers to New Hampshire’s Mount Carrigain, most notably its 360-degree summit view. From the mountain’s summit, hikers are treated to one of the White Mountains’ best perspectives—you can see 43 of the state’s 47 other 4,000-foot mountains (a number equaled only by Mount Washington), which has helped earn it the moniker “watchtower of the wilderness.” The overwhelming majority of hikers will travel one of the two trails to the summit of Mount Carrigain: the super scenic Signal Ridge or the Desolation Trail, one of the Terrifying 25.

The original route up Carrigain, however, went over Vose Spur, one of the two subsidiary peaks that give the mountain its triple-humped profile. Standing at 3,862 feet, Vose Spur is on the New England Hundred Highest List (NEHH), is among the tallest peaks in the region standing beneath 4,000 feet, and is a wonderful off-trail adventure in its own right.

Credit: Tim Peck.

Starting Out for Vose Spur

Vose Spur is named after George Vose—a Bowdoin College professor and civil engineer—who is erroneously credited with the first ascent of Mount Carrigain in 1869 while helping to complete the NH Geological Survey. As authors Laura and Guy Waterman explain in their classic book Forest and Crag, the first recorded ascent actually happened in 1857 when Swiss scientist Arnold Henri Guyot (the namesake of Mount Guyot), along with a party of explorers, climbed the mountain. It’s suspected the route taken by Guyot departed Carrigain Notch, the backcountry pass that separates the steep flanks of Mount Lowell from Carrigain’s hulking mass, and climbed up and over Vose Spur on the way to Carrigain’s summit.

When reaching the summit of Mount Carrigain, a member of Guyot’s party remarked, “I don’t begrudge the pains taken in the least. Quite the contrary…the outlook was quite beyond anything yet seen.” Although most Vose Spur hikers will not continue on to Mount Carrigain’s summit, most will agree that the vantage from the slide below Vose Spur is well worth the effort.

Vose Spur hikers today follow a similar path to that of Guyot and his group, although now they’re able to tick off two-plus miles up Sawyer River Road in their cars—provided it’s open—before continuing on the well-traveled Signal Ridge and Carrigain Notch Trails for approximately three miles. Vose Spur sees more traffic than it did 150+ years ago, but once off trail, it’s likely today’s hikers will still experience the “scratched face and hands, bruised feet and well-worn clothes” described by a member of Guyot’s party.

New Hampshire Geological and Mineralogical Survey

George Vose’s 1869 trip to Carrigain was as a member of the New Hampshire Geological Survey. He was accompanied by George F. Morse, an accomplished artist from Portland, Maine, and John C. Cobb, a guide from nearby Bartlett, New Hampshire.

The trio set up camp in the area of the present-day Carrigain Notch Trail, the launching point for most present-day trips up to Carrigain and Vose Spur. Ironically, Vose and his party took a more direct route than Guyot did on his first recorded ascent, bypassing the spur that would later bear his name, and ascending the southernmost slide on Carrigain’s east face. That route—now known as “Cobb’s Stairs” in homage to the group’s guide—delivered the party onto Signal Ridge, a few hundred vertical feet below the summit. With cloud cover impairing visibility, Vose and his group thought their position on Signal Ridge was the summit and descended.

Carrigain wouldn’t see a second recorded ascent until 1871 when another party from the New Hampshire Geological Survey reached the summit. They measured the mountain’s elevation at 4,678 feet—impressively close to the 4,700-foot elevation assigned to the mountain today.

Credit: Tim Peck.

White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine

Two years later, in 1873, Mount Carrigain would receive another significant ascent when six explorers visited the mountain. At the time, the mountain remained quite remote, with one member of the party writing, “We never heard of it before and hope never to see it again.” The explorer continued: Carrigain “is none of your civilized mountains, the resort of tourists, made easy of ascent by foot-path, carriage ways and railroads, like your tame Mt. Washingtons. It is a savage peak, rising remote in the wilderness.”

This 1873 expedition played a pivotal role in the formation of the White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine—the nation’s second hiking club. It’s said that the idea for the White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine, was conceived on the Carrigain trip, and, according to Forest and Crag, George Vose was among its principal organizers.

The White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine, however, only lasted for roughly a decade. Many assume the club’s demise was the result of its members leaving the group to join the expanding ranks of the AMC, which had formed three years later in 1876.

Redemption for George Vose

Carrigain played a central role in the short tenure of the White Mountain Club of Portland, Maine. Members made numerous trips to the then little-visited region and mapped much of the area, calculating elevations and creating accurate drawings of the region. They also named three of Carrigain’s prominent peaks: Vose Spur, Mount Lowell (named after Abner Lowell, President of the White Mountain Club), and Mount Anderson (named after John F. Anderson, one of the club’s founders).

Vose himself would return to Mount Carrigain in 1874, reaching the summit on this trip while carrying a barometer to measure the elevation and “a bottle with records.” He put the outstanding summit view in perspective, writing:

It stands almost exactly in the centre of the vast group of the White and Franconia Mts., and, rising as it does to a height of nearly 5,000 feet, is a marked feature in the landscape from almost every point of view. Conversely, the view from Carrigain must embrace the whole mountain mass, and must sweep around over all the principal summits…Ranges and notches, huge mountains and broad valleys, never seen from the points commonly visited in this region, are spread all around. From its central position a better idea of the arrangement of the White and Franconia Mts. is had then from any other point, perhaps, in the whole group.

Credit: Tim Peck.

Other Early Recorded Ascents of Carrigain

In June 1875, the club repeated an ascent up Cobb’s Stairs. Two months later, a group of four men went up a fork north of Cobb’s Stairs and over the mountain, continuing through the Pemigewasset Wilderness and following the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River to North Woodstock—a three-day trip.

To get an idea of what a trip through the Pemi looked like in the early 1870s, consider how John M. Gould, an early chronicler of the club, described his own hike of Mount Carrigain. He wrote, “as far as the eye can reach in any weather the only sign of man that is visible is the clearing at Upper Bartlett with Cobbs house & the Steam Mill, & the houses on Mt. Washington. In every other direction one sees rocks & forest only; this is one of the compensations for ascending Mt. Carrigain.” Even Livermore, the logging community along Sawyer River Road that’s now a ghost town, hadn’t been founded yet.

Climbing Vose Spur Today

As the White Mountains continue to grow in popularity, so do the crowds, making it increasingly difficult to have an experience similar to those of Guyot, Vose, and their contemporaries. That said, adventure can still be found on Mount Carrigain, particularly on Vose Spur.

To summit Vose Spur today, hikers need to bushwhack up the mountain from the Carrigain Notch Trail. A good landmark for the bushwhack is a large boulder on the left-hand side of the westbound trail near some embedded flat rocks. A rough herd path starts about 50 feet farther along the trail.

Once on the bushwack, it’s easy to imagine what Guyot and his party felt while visiting Carrigain via Vose Spur. It’s uncommon to come across other hikers while ascending the peak and it’s remarkably wild, particularly compared to classic White Mountain routes. As such, these words, although penned by a member of the 1873 expedition up Carrigain, still ring true:

The brooks were dry, the way was steep,

We stumbled and we grumbled,

In mosses old we lost our hold,

And down the hill we tumbled.

“Tumbled” is an apt description of the present-day ascents of Vose Spur. It isn’t the sanitized experience found on other steep White Mountain trails, even when compared to the slides on Tripyramid or Flume. The terrain in Carrigain Notch—with Carrigan on one side and Vose Spur on the other—is, in the words of Vose “imposing, both on account of [its] exceeding steepness and of the [two mountains’] great height.” The bushwack to the summit is impressively steep, crosses an interesting talus field, features a few high-consequence maneuvers, and one false move could have dramatic consequences. The navigation can also be challenging, especially in the sections where the herd path peters out.

Credit: Tim Peck.

A Majestic Mountain

In Forest and Crag, which was first published in 1989, Mount Carrigain is described as “the quintessential eastern mountain, in lordly isolation at the south end of the Pemi, with its deep-cut sides, majestic ridges and hidden secrets.” Now, over thirty years later, with the White Mountains as busy as ever, hikes like Vose Spur still allow hikers to discover the mountain’s majestic ridges and hidden secrets.